Monday, December 19, 2011

Creative Deconstruction

Creative Deconstruction

The article about Steve Jobs by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (November 14, 2011) portrays him as a "tweaker," someone who perfects other people's inventions by making a series of small (and fanatically perfectionist) improvements in them. Gladwell argues that tweakers have historically been as important as visionary inventors. Without debating that point, pro or con, I'd like to call attention to an analogy that struck me when I was reading Gladwell's story about how Jobs perfected the commercials for the iPad. He wound up screaming, in his usual charming way, that he hated what he had seen so far, the screams being directed at the guy who was generating ideas about, and prototypes of, iPad commercials, James Vincent. Vincent finally shouted, "You've got to tell me what you want," and Jobs shouted back, "You've got to show me some stuff, and I'll know it when I see it." (Quotes on p.~34 of Gladwell's article; he got them from Walter Isaacson's recent, timely biography.)

What I was struck by is how closely this fits the "standard model" of how creativity works --- or doesn't quite fit. According to the standard model, attested to by introspection from geniuses of various sorts who have wondered where their great ideas came from, creativity requires a random generator of ideas, and a filter that "knows a good idea when it sees it." With all due respect to these geniuses, all smarter than me, what has always seemed ridiculous is the idea that their brains contain the equivalent of monkeys and typewriters generating essentially random stuff. If James Vincent were just a random idea generator, Jobs would have gotten nowhere. The fact is, few people in the world could have replaced him, and not just because few good ad-copy producers could tolerate a Steve Jobs as well as he apparently did. Similarly, it may seem to Henri Poincaré that the ideas he had to shoot down before coming across a genius-level insight were just stupid, but I and many other people would be thrilled to have an idea as good as the ones he rejected. So the standard model is really a homuncular theory, in the sense that it posits a little guy inside every genius who is almost a genius, who collaborates with his or her "conscious self" as Vincent did with Jobs. As such, it strikes me as worthless.

On the other hand, it suggests that many tweakers are really goaders and recognizers, who drive really smart people to produce ideas that the tweakers can put forward as their own (often, as in Jobs's case, with inadequate credit to the goadee). A homuncular theory of tweaking is not question-begging, because there are a lot of people like Mr. Vincent who can play the role of homunculus just fine, although we are as mystified as ever about what their fine minds actually do.

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